Darth Vader will not perform at Trump's inauguration

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Another surprising name can now be added to the list of celebrities unwilling to perform in Donald Trump's inauguration. The Sith Lord Darth Vader can now be added to the list of people such as Elton John, the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, and Moby. To many Republicans, this news comes as a shock, as earlier this week, rumours had spread that Vader would be attending.

Seen recently in the film Rogue One, a spokesperson for Darth Vader has confirmed that the Sith Lord has refused to attend the ceremony. When a member of Trump's transition team released a statement that Lord Vader had accepted a deal to make an appearance, the Sith Lord released the following video.

https://youtu.be/jsW9MlYu31g

Donald Trump immediately went to twitter, claiming that "Vader is a whiny little loser. Can't even find the Death Star plans. Sad!".

Donald Trump tweets: Darth Vader is a whiny little loser. Can't even find the Death Star Plans. Sad!
Donald Trump tweets: Darth Vader is a whiny little loser. Can't even find the Death Star Plans. Sad!

Pundits have noted that the Death Star was a monumental build project, which created trillions of jobs over twenty years. In contrast, Donald Trump's biggest build project is a proposed wall at the border with Mexico, but as of yet, no concrete plans have been made for the construction, or for funding the project.

It is also unclear what Darth Vader's role would have been during the inauguration. While many celebrities are musical performers, Vader is best known for enforcing order in the Galaxy. Some suggest that Trump had aspirations to follow in the footsteps of Grand Moff Tarkin, and to have Vader force-choke his enemies.

In a final message, Darth Vader warned Trump to "Be careful not to choke on your aspirations" to a visibly distressed President-elect.

Challenges facing Artificial Intelligence

Technology is changing quickly, especially in the area of artificial intelligence. In 1985, Garry Kasparov defeated 32 different chess computers simultaneously. In 1997, Garry Kasparov lost to IBM's chess computer Deep Blue in Game 6. This could be considered the tipping point, where computer programs became better than humans at some difficult tasks. By 2011, IBM once again shocked the world, when their Watson computer defeated former champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings on Jeopardy! in two televised matches.

Fast forward once again to 2016, where Google's DeepMind AlphaGo artificial intelligence program defeated 18-time world champion 9-dan Go master Lee Sedol, by winning 4 of 5 games, a feat previously judged to be at least a decade away.

Lee Sedol plays game three in his match against Google's AlphaGo artificial intelligence program
Lee Sedol plays game three in his match against Google's AlphaGo artificial intelligence program

Tay's failure in artificial intelligence

Then there was Microsoft's Tay artificial intelligence. Microsoft launched a chat bot, which would respond to input from users on Twitter. They shut down Tay within 24 hours, having become as The Verge reports "a racist asshole". Why did this experiment go so badly?

The Tay AI chatbot artificial intelligence was quickly shut down
The Tay AI chatbot artificial intelligence was quickly shut down

The earlier examples of artificial intelligence all involve controlled environments. Deep Blue and AlphaGo work entirely within the rules of the game board, and contain virtually no social interaction. Watson was able to respond to input through a rule-based system that created a question by mining data from static data sets. As for Tay, this artificial intelligence was released not just to the internet at large, but to Twitter in particular. Tay was unprepared for a completely unstructured and uncontrolled environment.

Twitter as an uncontrolled environment

I use Twitter myself ( @maplemuse ). While twitter can be good for sharing information, it's also home to considerably darker elements. Twitter is a free exchange marketplace for ideas, but as noble an idea as that sounds, not all the ideas are... appropriate for polite company. Microsoft claims that this was a "a coordinated attack by a subset of people". They just don't understand Twitter.

There are a few fundamental problems with Microsoft's approach. They completely failed to impose rudimentary controls over the environment, and take into account "rogue actors" who would find this a fun challenge. Secondly, this seems to have been an open-ended project without a clear product goal. The earlier programs tested progress against clearly defined and measurable goals.

It seems like the answer to Microsoft's classic slogan "Where do you want to go today?" was something Hunter S. Thompson wrote.

Twitter is bat country!
Twitter is bat country!

The Turing Test and Eliza

Clearly, Microsoft was reaching towards passing the classic Turing test, whereby a human conversing with an artificial intelligence or computer program would be unable to determine whether they were talking to a program, or to another human. Having a conversational program hearkens back to Eliza, a software chat program written at the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab back in the mid 1960s. Eliza parrots back statements as questions, mimicking the style of  psychotherapy.

While it remains unclear how much of Tay was mimicry, and how much was artificial intelligence and rule processing, it is quite clear that no company will release a conversation AI directly onto Twitter ever again.

Star Trek Beyond: A mostly non-spoilerish review

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I don't normally get out to see movies in theatres these days, except for two cases: the film is aimed at kids, or it's either Star Trek or Star Wars. I'm kind of predictable that way. Well, a new Star Trek movie has hit theatres, and I got a chance to see one of the 3D showings. With Fast and the Furious director Justin Lin at the helm, did this still feel like Trek? Read on to find more. The only spoilers refer to the official trailers.

Movie Star Trek vs TV Star Trek

Like the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, and the hot mess that was Star Trek Into Darkness (Khaaaaaaaan!), Star Trek Beyond is clearly an action film. This shouldn't really come as a big surprise, as the TNG films were also heavily shifted into action movies. TV Picard was the anti-Kirk, being a philosophical diplomat. Encountering Q, he quoted Shakespeare at him. Sisko punched Q in the face, and never met him again, but Picard, he needed to debate philosophy, at least in the TV series. In the films, Picard was an action hero, doffing his command jacket to pick up a phaser rifle.

TV Trek probably relied more on dialogue because dialogue is much cheaper to film on a TV budget than special effects heavy action sequences. This is clearly not an issue with Star Trek Beyond.

I am Kirk's angst

From the second trailer, we hear Kirk talk about how his father joined Starfleet because he believed in it, Kirk pretty much just joined on a dare. The implication is that Kirk isn't really sure he belongs in space, possibly because he's been kicked out of all the female crew quarters by that time.

There is some, albeit minor, philosophizing about the nature of being a captain in Starfleet. The comparison is to submarine crews, where people endure long isolation from the rest of the world.

Character Driven

All things considered, this film is really quite character driven. I suspect that it's nearly impossible to write a film with these characters that isn't to a large extent character driven. Kirk, Spock, and Bones have become archetypal characters. The trick is to write scenes that feel right, without mirroring scenes that happened on the show, or in earlier movies. There's a moment where Kirk and McCoy meet for a drink that felt like vintage Deforest Kelley.

Most of the best quotable moments in the film involve the witty repartee between McCoy and Spock, although Scotty holds his own against anyone he's talking to.

Progressive Trek

The 2009 reboot and Star Trek Into Darkness took some well-deserved flak for their gratuitous shots of scantily clad women, in scenes which do not advance the plot. That has clearly changed in Star Trek Beyond. As part of a montage sequence, there is a shirtless Kirk being kicked out into the ship's corridors.

When the ship arrives at a starbase, there is a simple shot of Sulu meeting his partner and their child. It's simple, and powerful, but raises more social questions. In TNG, Miles and Keiko O'Brien raise their small child Molly on the Enterprise. Why can Sulu not have his child on board? Oh, well, from the trailers, it should come as no surprise that the Enterprise is catastrophically destroyed. So I suppose having children on board might cause some problems there.

Star Trek Beyond in 3D and musical choices

Once again, the reboot brings in some modern music, and once again, that music is the Beastie Boys in Sabotage. It seemed a bit gimmicky in the 2009 reboot, but in Beyond, I think they worked it deeper into the plot, at a crucial point. It helps of course, that I'm a fan of the Beastie Boys.

I've not seen a lot of movies in 3D. It usually seems gimmicky, especially when you can pick out the parts of a film which were aimed at a 3D audience. In Star Trek Beyond, nothing reached this level of gimmick, although the flyovers around the Enterprise seemed almost pornographic, caressing the curves of the starship in various flyover scenes. Other scenes use the concept of screen distance rather effectively, in the major climax of the film. The most disturbing parts of the 3D experience were actually some of the rotational drift in the zero gravity sequences.

Is it worth seeing?

Yes, yes it is. It's clearly better than Into Darkness, and has the distinct advantage of being able to skip the introductions that the reboot needed to do. The Enterprise enters battle at the 30 minute mark, leaving lots of time to develop the story. For movie Star Trek, this is one of the good ones.

https://youtu.be/Tvq3y8BhZ2s

Waterloo Region Industrial Redevelopment

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I've now worked in the high-tech industry in Waterloo Region for over fifteen years now. I've worked for companies that were small, and just starting out, to some of the larger tech companies in the region, as well as the world. Waterloo region used to have a strong industrial base, but over the years, manufacturing has moved overseas. With this shift in manufacturing, some unique properties have gone into disuse.

Among the redeveloped builds that I've had the opportunity to work in include 72 Victoria St, which started renovations back in 2000, 151 Charles Street, also known as the Tannery, and now 51 Breithaupt St, also known as the Breithaupt Block.

Instead of the sterile drywall and ceiling tiles in other office buildings, these buildings all featured open beam and brick construction. The character and history of the building are open to view. There is something very comforting about being able to look up to see the structure of wooden beam rafters above me, or to see a wall of old brick.

A brick wall in the Breithaupt Block building in Waterloo region

It's interesting to see how the region has grown over the past twenty years, and how the downturn in manufacturing has changed to a rise in information technology companies. Looking at the construction of the LRT in the region, it's easy to get annoyed at the traffic problems it's causing. Getting from one side of King Street to the other side isn't as easy today as it was before the construction started.

There are still derelict buildings in the downtown core, and others, such as the Mayfair Hotel, which have been torn down due to structural integrity problems. Some of these buildings, such as the Rumpel Felt building (constructed in 1913, with additions in 1942, 1961, and 1968) have been vacant for nearly a decade. The Rumpel Felt building closed in 2007.

A view of the Rumpel Felt building, a brick industrial building in downtown Kitchener

Others, like the MacIntosh Dry Cleaners, have closed more recently, within the past year.

The Macintosh Dry Cleaners was a family run dry cleaning business operating in Kitchener since 1934 for 81 years, but has closed in 2015 due to lack of business.

The fundamental dynamics of the region have changed. While we are no longer an industrial city, we still have a strong industrial heritage. Redevelopment plans don't need to include tearing down these older buildings. Redevelopment of existing buildings maintains a connection to the history of the region, as well as providing a creative place to work.

This has been a successful strategy as well, with the tech hub at Communitech, the University of Waterloo's Velocity incubator, and a number of great startups like Vidyard, and D2L in the region.

https://youtu.be/lGo4FT3Dv8o

Star Wars: Jedi, Racism, and the Force Awakens

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Three trailers have now dropped for the upcoming Star Wars film, and there has been some controversy about racial politics, with some "fans" threatening a boycott because one of the main characters is black. Boo hoo hoo. It's about time that we see the racial diversity of the films expanded to a primary cast member. Sure, Lando Calrissian was black, but he's very much a supporting cast member. https://youtu.be/sGbxmsDFVnE

In Kevin Smith's film Chasing Amy, there's some biting commentary on racial prejudice in the original trilogy. While Lando's name launches us into the subject, he's essentially ignored in the main argument.

https://youtu.be/I0VZj-85E5o

I've started watching the original films with my kids, and this is likely the first time I've watched any of the films in a few years. My old VHS collection gathers dust, as my old VCR had died some time ago. I had resisted upgrading my childhood memories to George Lucas' most recent revision, but gave out at last.

There are a number of disturbing elements in the films, even in the parts which he didn't try to rewrite. His attempts at whitewashing the universe, and making his characters more "heroic" is not that successful. Han shot first, and to suggest otherwise diminishes his status as a smuggler and a scoundrel. I can understand why Lucas would want to redeem this flaw in his hero, but I don't have to agree with it.

The "heroic" Jedi however, have always failed in one rather critical aspect of the films: the treatment of droids. R2D2 and C3P) are our primary characters from the very first scene of the films. Through them, we are introduced to Luke Skywalker. We see C3PO relax in a luxurious oil bath. They are, in some ways, more human than some of the other characters. But all the characters treat them as slaves, even the Jedi.

The Jawas are "scavengers", but in reality are slave traders, capturing unprotected droids. The droids are held captive by restraining bolts. When R2D2 escapes, there will be "hell to pay". Because escaped slaves need to be dealt with harshly.

I think the scene that does the most damage is the Mos Eisley Cantina, where the bartender says that they "don't serve their kind here". Rather than standing up for droid rights, Luke tells the droids to wait outside, so as not to cause trouble. But when someone raises some trouble with Luke, its lightsaber time, and before you can say "these are not the droids you're looking for", some alien creature has been disarmed and dis-armed.

The arm of an alien who tried to cause trouble with Luke Skywalker.

Look, I realize that Obi-Wan Kenobi may not be the best of Jedi: he did kind of raise and teach Anakin, who ended up murdering all the other Jedi, including a temple full of children. Kenobi must have been a great role model.

But surely once Luke becomes a Jedi, he will become a little more enlightened, and accept these droids as friends, and not property, right? Whats that? I can't hear you over the sound of Jabba the Hutt's booming laughter as he accepts the gift of two droids, without the knowledge or consent of at least one of them. Its quite possible that R2D2 was in on Luke's plan, but its clear that C3PO wasn't consulted in his fate as protocol droid to a major crime boss.

So much for the Jedi being a force of good. Its just a different form of slavery, very much modelled on American history. Non-humans weren't really treated equal either. At the end of A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo get these cool medals, but Chewbacca just gets to stand nearby.

Han Solo and Luke Skywalker receive medals while Chewbacca looks on

So that brings us back to the new episode, where it was revealed that John Boyega is going to play a major role as Finn.

John Boyega is a black actor who plays the role of Finn, standing in a desert with stormtrooper armour.

I really hope he lives up to the role, and that maybe his character even treats droids with a little more respect. He looks pretty badass with a lightsaber. May the Force be with him.

Finn ignites a lightsaber in the third Force Awakens trailer

The Dandelion Perspective

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Where I see a field of green marred by malignant yellow weeds, my daughters see flowers growing in the meadow. A bouquet of flowers, or of weeds?

I've told them they're allowed to pick as many dandelions from the lawn as they like. Like many things they do, their enthusiasm is endearing. Their perspective on the problem is limited to what they can see: a flower.

I see a little farther, where the weeds will spread through the lawn, and steal the water from the grass during the hottest parts of the summer. I see hours of pulling them up from the roots, to slow down their growth.

A shift in perspective can be a powerful change. Even when you recognize an obstacle, sometimes it can be quite refreshing to consider other perspectives, and other objectives to judge merit. The world is not black and white, but shades of all colours. Sometimes the green may be covered in yellow, but that's not always a bad thing.

First aid

For two days, I've watched videos featuring bloodshed, knife attacks, punctured lungs, objects embedded in eyes, and amputations. This wasn't a slasher film marathon, but first aid training. I've had first aid training many times over the years, probably starting with some training with Scouts Canada. First aid skills were far more likely to be required in scouting than in today's modern office environment, but as the Scouts motto said: Be Prepared. So once again, I took the first aid, CPR and AED training.

Small hand injury

The training materials have changed over the years, most clearly showing the change are the instructional videos. The production quality has dramatically improved. They're quite effective at showing the first aid techniques, and in drilling the basic components of giving first aid, such as assessing vital signs. They're also obviously not likely to win any acting awards. While the makeup is quite realistic, showing increasingly pale and sweaty skin for those suffering from shock, and perhaps more closeups on the injuries than is entirely comfortable, all the actors remain remarkably calm during all the scenarios.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing for instructional videos. The focus is appropriately placed on the treatment of injuries, rather than on the reactions of those involved. This is likely more effective for training purposes, than a more realistic response.

There are also a few amusing moments in the videos, in particular when they show the first upper arm open fracture. The casualty in question is in a stable with a small pony named Killer, as seen on a sign outside the stall. It's a small touch, appreciated by this audience. Most amusingly, the pony is far shorter than the casualty's arms. In truth, having some humour in the material seems to be pretty important, especially when dealing with painful subject matter.

There are also a series of skits involving a construction site. In the last video involving the construction site, the workers create their own triangular bandage to form an arm sling out of other materials. It serves a good purpose in reminding the audience that you can make do with whatever you have access to, but it also raises questions about the safety of this fake construction site, if they've exhausted their supply of triangular bandages. Surely the Ministry of Labour would have shut the site down.

My hope, as always, is that the training remains unused and unneeded. But in the case of a freak espresso machine accident, I once again stand prepared to assist.

Lest we forget our freedom

On November 11th, 1918, in a train carriage outside Compiègne, France, an Armistice was signed, bringing an end to the war between Germany and the Allies, to be ratified January 10th, 1920 in the Treaty of Versailles. For 4 years, 3 months and 2 weeks before, 16 million people died, with another 20 million people wounded in battle. Poppies in a field.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow       Between the crosses, row on row,    That mark our place; and in the sky    The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,    Loved and were loved, and now we lie          In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw    The torch; be yours to hold it high.    If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow          In Flanders fields

So goes the poem by Canadian physician John McCrae in the Great War. McCrae was born in 1872 in Guelph, Ontario, some 30 kilometers from where I write this. On January 28, 1918 he died in Boulange, France.

At the time, it was the Great War, the War to end all wars. Yet war is still waged, on a daily basis. Different weapons are used, and certainly different language describes it. Surgical strikes, aerial suppression. Armed insurgents. Drone strikes.

How well have we done in carrying the torch for the dead? What freedoms do we protect, to keep faith with those from the past? Despite so much shared suffering in the past century, I think one of the greatest tragedies today is humanity's inhumanity.

We still live in a world where we are not judged solely by the strength of our character. The colour of our skin, our sex or sexual orientation, our national ancestry, where we live, our religion or lack thereof are still all used as justification for some of the worst forms of discrimination.

What gives me hope is that when a mosque is spray-painted with graffiti reading "go home", when a woman speaks up against sexual violence from a media personality, that there are those in the community who help clean the vandalism, those who will speak up for those suffering from acts of violence, saying that "I believe you".

This Remembrance Day, let us not forget the veterans who died on foreign soil, far from home. But let us not forget our ability to care for others who are different from us. Let us remember that we are all human.

Authentic American History: Arizona

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I've been reading more of Philip K. Dick's stories lately. Mostly his short stories, but also The Man in the High Castle. Thinking about Dick's stories, my impressions of Arizona are filtered through the lens of historicity. What is the "authentic" Arizona experience? Is it one steeped in history, or that which reflects the current reality?

A view of the Superstition Mountains from the Goldfield Ghost Town.

The Phoenix Skyharbour Airport is similar to most other airports in North America: security checkpoints, slow moving lines, and long distances between where you are and where you need to be. It's not until I was on the shuttle to pick up a rental car that I was exposed to the external environment. As expected, it's hot. It's dry. It's very different from home. Yet the same sun sets over Arizona as does here.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/ok8ZNxR_Ohw]

Many areas near the highways in Phoenix, Tempe and Chandler that I visited are meticulously landscaped. Reddish brown gravel covers the side of the highway, where I'm familiar with unkempt green grassy weeds. From this grow a number of hardy shrubs and red flowering plants. Everything is well maintained: I frequently saw ground crews doing roadside maintenance. Any greenery was an olive colour: well adapted to the dry environment.

The highway overpasses were painted a tan colour, instead of the grey concrete. Embossed designs are a complementary purple. Most of the palm trees in these areas were well groomed, and there were also a number of cacti.

One gets an impression of the local economy, which appears to have weathered the financial crisis relatively well.

Stepping just outside this core area, towards the Apache Junction, things became significantly more naturalistic. Overpasses were no longer painted. Palm trees, while plentiful, looked ragged, with rough bark. Along the roads were scrub desert. Highway signs warning of flash floods.

A view of the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, with scrubland desert and cacti

Which of these represents the "authentic" Arizona?

I visited the Goldfield Ghost Town, as a bit of local tourism. I dont' think that I've every truly appreciated the term "tourist trap" until now. From the outside, things have an air of history. They're an outer shell of respectability. But step inside the saloon, and you quickly see how the building has been completely gutted and rebuilt, with new framing from the second floor up.

A view of the inside of the Mammoth Saloon, with reconstructed interior.

There was a small museum, for which a small entry fee was required. Within were several items of questionable provenance, and limited description. Near the end of the tour was the most interesting artifact: a dinner jacket purportedly worn by Doc Holliday. It has a plaque, mentioning that it was purchased from the Wells Fargo Museum in Tombstone, which was closed down and auctioned off in 1985-86. While this artifact is of course of interest to Arizona history, it felt out of place here, a three hour drive from Tombstone.

A dress coat worn by Doc Holilday

A plaque reading "Doc Holiday's Dress Coat. This no doubt was worn many times to the Bird Cage theater. Purchased from the sale of the Wells Fargo Museum, Tombstone, AZ by Goldfield Ghost Town in 1985. Charles F Dickerson Auctioneers"

Not nearly as out of place as the pottery shop. While the artist in residence could very well be from Arizona, the clay from which these trinkets were made was imported from California.

I could not help but think of Robert Childan, from the Man in the High Castle. These artifacts, passed off as authentic, holding only the bare veneer of truth. But was this location any different from Tuscon itself? Nestled under the Superstition Mountains, I felt both closer to history, yet also keenly aware of the alien nature. Reality is a relative construct, as in much of Dick's work.

Remembering Jay Lake

Last week, Jay Lake passed away. 20140602-094136-34896858.jpg

I met him briefly at the 2009 Worldcon in Montreal. He was always a very colourful person, and a very prolific writer.

His novels and stories were fun and imaginative. But where his wit truly showed through was in his blog. He was openly critical of anti-science rhetoric, especially where it involved affordable access to medical care.

Throughout his battle with cancer, he was open about the process, both in dealing with the medical and insurance systems, as well as dealing with the process itself.

Science fiction authors are often asked to imagine the future. Jay could see his future, and how brief a time it would be.

The future is now, and while Jay has shuffled off this mortal coil, his words remain to us, his final legacy.

Rest in peace Jay.

Crowd funding Second Contacts

There are many great stories about First Contact: when humanity first meets alien life. Bundoran Press, a small publisher in Ottawa, is currently in the last days of a fundraising campaign for a science fiction anthology of Second Contacts. The premise is interesting, as it allows the stories to explore the very real social changes that would occur during the fifty years after contact with an alien race. Second Contacts promo image

Their fundraising will allow them to offer pro rates for the authors in the anthology. Please consider contributing to the campaign. Bundoran's two previous anthologies were Blood and Water, and Strange Bedfellows, which also focused on very social issues with resource starvation, and political issues respectively.

There are also some great perks, should the project receive the funding it needs, including story critiques without going through a slush pile.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/second-contacts

Second Contacts promo image

Being Creative: Writing with Music

It should not be a surprise to anyone that music and writing are often closely linked. While some people can write in absolute silence, I generally benefit from music to help block out the world. 20140525-224514-81914107.jpg

The trick is in finding the right music. Something that stirs the creative mind, something which matches the mood of the work, and most importantly of all, something which isn't overly distracting.

For example, listening to Queen generally doesn't help. Instead of writing, I end up singing along. Power ballads are too powerful. They distract me from the writing process.

I don't have to avoid lyrics: there are many songs that work well with lyrics, so long as they don't overpower the music.

Lately, I've been really enjoying the latest Daft Punk album "Random Access Memories". I've been pleasantly surprised by this album. It's a big change since the days of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. They're still incredibly creative though. It's a fun album, and rather different from what I normally listen to. And as I'm writing science fiction, it seems somehow fitting that the music is performed by glittering robots.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Gkhol2Q1og&list=PLxws1M2-zjAPNbXeJrH_TTstwSQdm9KZ4&feature=share&index=6

Sometimes, when I'm looking for something a little more frenetic, I'll listen to some Nine Inch Nails. The 'Ghosts' album is mostly non-vocals, and rather atmospheric and haunting.

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/102164689" params="color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=true&show_artwork=true" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Another really great soundtrack to listen to while writing is the soundtrack to Blade Runner, by Vangelis.

http://youtu.be/uXXo1YDA9tE

If I was writing a story in the Wild West, I would likely want to listen to something more evocative of westerns, possibly some older country music. If I was writing something a little more Enlightenment or Reformation period, I'd listen to something more classical. Futurism however, has the distinct advantage of catering to more eclectic tastes.

Star Trek DS9 Reviews: If Wishes Were Horses

To be honest, If Wishes Were Horses really didn't capture my imagination. Manufactured crises with deus ex machina endings just don't cut it. Still, there are some redeeming qualities in the episode, one of which is watching Bashir try to explain to Jadzia Dax why his subconscious created a version of Dax that has the single goal of seducing him. Dax passionately kisses Bashir while he checks his tricorder

Wormhole aliens

This is a different twist on a First Contact story. Some wormhole aliens tap into the subconscious minds of the inhabitants of DS9, and take on forms from their imagination. Some hand wavy techno-babble is used, but the main point is to enable a story which uses the power of imagination, something which Odo refers to as a waste of time.

It's an interesting idea, but doesn't really get developed enough. Instead of focusing on the idea of a first contact story, this is really a disaster of the week type of story. If you can't yet tell, I'm not usually a fan of this type of story, unless it can offer something exceptional in the way of character development. Sadly, there is nothing really new or novel in this episode. Bashir's infatuation with Dax is already well established, and nothing really interesting occurs.

Dax, Bashir, and Dax

Aside from the usual banter between Quark and Odo, the most amusing parts of this episode are between Dax and Bashir. Bashir is, as Dax puts it "very young", especially from the perspective of a Trill. By this, she of course means that Bashir is overly amorous, towards basically any female who moves.

When the wormhole aliens take on the forms of the crew's imaginations, one of the primary manifestations is a "dream" Dax, who just seems to want to get close to Bashir. Its amusing, and I can see why this episode may be a favourite for the actors in question. It is a little awkward to kiss your coworker's clone while she watches.

A fake Dax fawns over Bashir, who tries to look busy by listening to the real Dax.

Rumplestiltskin

A dwarf who keeps asks O'Brien what services he needs, with implied threats to his firstborn, young Molly. Quite possibly the weakest part of the episode. Apparently, this was originally written as a leprechaun, but Colm Meany protested the racial aspects of an Irish stereotype. I'm not really sure that this was much of an improvement, as I felt this was the weakest thread in the episode. Last minute changes to scripts tend to water down the script.

The dwarf Rumplestiltskin

Buck Bokai and Baseball

As I mentioned in my review of Emissary, Deep Space 9's sport of choice is baseball. While it's useful as an analogy for linear time, in this episode, baseball is used to talk about simulations. Buck Bokai was a player for an LA Kings team, and Sisko and Jake have recreated his entire career in the holosuites. There are some nice things said about the nature of audiences.

Sisko and Jake meet the baseball legend Buck Bokai from the holosuite program

Quark and Odo

There are some amusing scenes with Quark. As we've seen in previous episodes, he enjoys spending time with beautiful women... unless money is on the line. His wish fulfilment in the episode involves two scantily clad women, who promptly disappear once Quark realizes that everyone in his bar is wishing to win at the dabo table, and that Quark is rapidly going out of business.

Quark is enthralled by two scantily clad women

Soon thereafter, it turns out that Odo does have an imagination, and his deepest desire is to hold Quark in a holding cell.

The problem of the week

In the end, the crisis of the episode was a figment of the crews imagination, something that threatened to tear the station apart. Its solved by realizing that it is a figment, and that there is no anomaly.

The viewscreen shows the space anomaly which will destroy the station

After the crew solves this problem, there is a final discussion between Sisko and the wormhole aliens, before they depart. They hint at returning in the future, but thankfully, this episode is never repeated.

If Wishes Were Horses first aired 16 May 1993. Teleplay by Neil McCue Crawford, William L Crawford and Michael Piller. Story by Neil McCue Crawford and William L. Crawford. Directed by Robert Legato.

River Song has left the Library. River Song has been saved.

I've just finished rewatching Silence in the Library, and Forest of the Dead, the two episodes of Doctor Who where River Song is introduced. So much potential is introduced in this story, that it's not entirely surprising that fans feel let down by how River's story has played out.

River Song in Silence in the Library

The Doctor has rebooted the universe once, and restored it a second time when all of history occurred at once. He faked his own death, but the future for River remains locked up in the library.

I preferred River as an enigma, where her cryptic spoilers hint at untold adventures, rather than reveal a more mundane existence.

It's perhaps telling that one of the major story points for River Song was dropped into a mini-episode: her last night with the Doctor before the Library. The moment where the Doctor gives her his sonic screwdriver, knowing that the next time she meets him will be her last. It's included as a bonus feature for a DVD or Blu-Ray boxed set, but as there are no real plot points, aside from our knowledge that this is her last night before the Library. It's a gimmicky short, and wastes a good opportunity with something a little deeper.

In a way, it's good that this was an Eleventh Doctor mini-epsiode. The Doctor taking River out on dates seems very much like Eleven. I really think we'll get a much different Doctor out of Twelve, and one of the things that should feel much different is his relationship with River Song.

River Song in America

I'm torn between wanting to see how the Twelfth Doctor and River Song negotiate their relationship, and wanting to see Twelve find himself alone, then finally rediscover River. Perhaps it's too much to ask of Moffat to set River Song aside for a series? It might actually build up a bit more emotion if he finally encounters River after some time apart.

The thing about River is that there's always room in her history for her timeline to cross with the Doctor, and get another episode together. But is that enough to justify doing so? Knowing Moffat, we will see River again sooner rather than later. If there are any other mysterious aspects of Doctor Who, Moffat will shine a cold, hard light on them, dispelling any of the magic.

I just hope that Moffat leaves River's future in the Library.

Joining Google

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A few weeks ago, I received an offer of employment from Google. I'll be working in the Google Waterloo office, currently located in the Tannery building in downtown Kitchener. It's a pretty cool office, which I've visited several times now for various interviews and meetings. I've worked for small and medium-sized companies before, but before this, the largest company I've worked for was Research in Motion (since renamed to BlackBerry), although they're not as big as they were at their zenith. Google will easily surpass that, but it seems that the culture is in many ways, more like some of the smaller companies that I've worked for.

Yesterday was the last day at my current job. While it's sad to see it go, new opportunities await. Automation control software can be quite challenging, but there isn't as much emphasis on user interface and user experience as I would like. Still, in the end, it's a big change.

Here's to the next chapter! I'm rather excited.

A LEGO android

Why do Klingons hate Tribbles?

It's a simple question really. Why do Klingons hate Tribbles, those cuddly balls of fluff from the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles"? Dax and Sisko with Tribbles all around

Tribbles occur in three episodes in the Star Trek franchise: The Trouble with Tribbles from the original series, More Tribbles, More Trouble from The Animated Series, and again in Trials and Tribble-ations in DS9, which involves time travel back to The Trouble with Tribbles. They're one of the most memorable creatures from the original series, perhaps only outdone by the classic Gorn fight. But where the Gorn is every bit a guy in a rubber suit, tribbles are cute little balls of fluff. Think of it like a cat without the pointy bits, and with a constant desire to cuddle.

Kirk holds up some tribbles towards Doctor McCoy

Unless you're a Klingon. Tribbles hate Klingons, and Klingons hate tribbles. There have been a few explanations why. Some have suggested that both species have highly advanced senses of smell, and can't stand each other's stench. This seems rather unlikely. Why should a tribble be much different from any other small mammalian style, furry creature?

What is known, is that a tribble infestation affected several Klingon colonies, destroying their crops and their economies. This kicked off the Great Tribble Hunt, where Klingon warriors exterminated all tribbles, causing a vast genocide, and wiping them out completely.

How did this infestation start, exactly? Well, neither Uhura, Scotty, nor Spock really want to take the credit for it, but all the tribbles were transported from the Enterprise to a visiting Klingon cruiser. So, one could argue that the crew of the Enterprise was indirectly responsible for the chain of events which led to the mass genocide of the tribble species. No wonder that none of them wants to take the credit.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/sKLyXjMT07I]

But the reason the Klingons began the extermination of thee tribbles was this future infestation, yet there still appears to be some intense dislike between them already. It is quite possible that this was not the first tribble infestation the Klingons have encountered in the past, and that there had been previous, unsuccessful extermination attempts.

Interestingly, in More Tribbles, More Trouble, it is said that the Klingon infestations were due to Cyrano Jones, a human trader, rather than the crew of the Enterprise. This seems to be an attempt to avoid the crew taking responsibility for an ecological disaster, even though they end up sending more tribbles home with the Klingons at the end of the episode.

Cyrano Jones, a human trader, holds a tribble, a soft ball of fur.

It seems likely that there have been multiple incidents in the past, which have led the Klingons to label tribbles an ecological menace. The Klingons had already started a genetic engineering project to attempt to eradicate the creatures. It is interesting to note, however, that it is only the Klingons who have such an intense hatred for tribbles.

In the end, I like to think of the Klingon-Tribble relationship like that of an adult with no experience with children, and a baby. Everyone else coos over the baby, which makes happy baby noises, until the adult tries to hold it. At this point, the happy noises change to incessant squalling. Needless to say, both parties develop a dislike for each other.

Quark doesn't seem to be as impressed with the tribbles

Feminism and Disney's Frozen

I've seen Disney's latest film Frozen with my kids twice now, and I'm rather pleased with the progress they have made in presenting realistic female characters. 20140204-134537.jpg

Disney doesn't exactly have a history of being socially progressive. Most of their films, especially from the earlier days, are filled with racist caricatures. Aside from Mickey Mouse, Disney's most well-known films are their Disney princesses. Most of the early ones aren't exactly independent women.

  • Snow White: She does housekeeping for a household of dwarves before falling into a coma, until some passing prince gives her a kiss.
  • Sleeping Beauty: Aurora sleeps through a large part of the movie, until some adventurous prince comes to rescue her.
  • Cinderella: A house slave, who meets a prince who can't remember what she looks like, but has one of her shoes.
  • The Little Mermaid: Ariel literally changes who she is, giving up her precious voice in order to be closer to her prince.
  • Beauty and the Beast: Belle domesticates her prince, because we can't have someone with beastly behaviour.
  • Aladdin: Most of the plot revolves around who Jasmine is allowed to marry.
  • Pocahontas: the colonization of the New World, where a romantic involvement is created between the historic figures of Pocahontas and John Smith.

Some of the more recent films are better, in particular Tangled and Brave. But even there, there are problems. In Brave, the main disagreement and inciting incident revolves around Merida's choice in marriage. While she remains single, it is a primary source of conflict in the film.

With two young daughters, many of these films are problematic, not the least of which is their cultural influence. A few of these films I've never shown my kids, and probably won't until they're much older.

Frozen

The latest Disney film, Frozen, really ups the game. While there are other important characters, the movie is really about the relationship between two sisters, Elsa and Anna.

Spoilers ahead

While the younger sister does have two potential love interests, Queen Elsa has none. It also turns out that the act of true love which provides the fairy-tale ending is not "true love's kiss", but instead a heroic, selfless act to protect a sister. (At this point in the movie, my youngest daughter was in tears, and during the moment of silence in the film, there were more than one child-like sob from the audience).

"True Love"

So, what about those love interests? As this is Disney, they still feel compelled to writ some kind of love interest, if only for the musical numbers.

Hans is a prince from another kingdom, 13th in line to the throne. He proposes to Anna on the evening of Elsa's coronation. They ask for Elsa's blessing, claiming that it's true love, but she refuses, saying that they've just met. Later, Kristoff also questions her judgement for getting engaged to someone she's just met. Finally, it turns out that everyone else was right, and Hans reveals that he's just in it for the keys to the kingdom.

Everything seems lined up for Kristoff to provide an act of true love (a kiss, right?) when Anna instead turns and puts herself between her sister and a killing blow from Hans' sword. This is the act of true love: complete self sacrifice to protect someone you love. Sisterly love, which had been so cruelly denied earlier in the film.

There are a number of reasons why I really enjoyed this film, but in think the most important is how it's a story about two sisters. The movie revolves around their relationship, in a way that hasn't really happened in a Disney princess movie before.

Queen Elsa

One of the rather interesting things about this film is how they dealt with Elsa. From what I gather, the original plan for the adaptation of the Snow Queen was for Elsa to be the villain. During development, her character was completely rewritten, as a much more in depth character.

For myself, the two crucial points in the film are Anna's sacrifice at the ending, and Elsa's flight from the town of Arrendale. Her song "Let it Go" signaled a change, where she would embrace her magic, where she had previously attempted to suppress it.

http://youtu.be/moSFlvxnbgk

Also of note is that in Frozen, there is a single line about Elsa's suitability for marriage, when Hans confesses that his original plan was to marry Elsa, but that "no one was getting anywhere with her". From being a primary plot point in Brave, to a single line in Frozen. Seems to be a big change.

Almost, but not quite

So, there are still a few places where this film fails. While Elsa escapes without a love interest, Anna has two. There are two (with a marginal third) musical numbers dedicated to her suitability for marriage. Both girls lead a sheltered life and Anna appears to be overly enthusiastic about getting out into the world. It fits with the existing franchise, and that's something Disney probably wasn't about to mess with. In fact, I'm pleasantly surprised by how far they have come, and by how successful the movie has been in theaters.

Star Trek DS9 Reviews: Progress

After Storyteller, I was really glad to watch Progess. It's a more nuanced plot that drives character development, particularly that of Major Kira, while also revealing more about how the Bajoran government works. Not really much in the way of story arc development, but it does speak to social changes.

Progress

Progress is always seen as some shining ideal, the great leap forward. New advances in engineering allow us to build great public works, such as hydroelectric dams, or as in this episode, geothermal devices to harness power from the molten core of one of Bajor's moons, to generate power for large groups of people. With every dam, large lakes are formed, displacing people and animals upstream. In Progress, Bajoran refugees live on the moon's surface, and must be displaced. Because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and all that jazz. Even if it means burning down their homes first.

Kira burns down Mullibok's home

Kira's stubbornness

If there's something we've learned about Kira so far is that she's proud and stubborn. This episode really focuses on her development, gives her pride a good knock, and tests her stubbornness against those of another: Mullibok. Better yet, it tests her values, showing both her compassion for other Bajorans, as well as her dedication towards the future.

Kira is surrounded by farmers wielding farm implements

Like Battle Lines, where Kira encountered underground warriors fighting an ongoing war, this episode forces Kira to consider her role in the Bajoran Resistance, as well as her role in the Provisional Government. Are the values she fought for being served now? What cost can be paid now to further their goals as a people? Is it right for a society to demand further sacrifices of a few for the benefit of all? Spock's words in the Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" have often weighed heavily on Star Trek, and have particular resonance in this episode.

The economics of Star Trek

There are several things about Star Trek that are intentionally hand-wavy. You're not supposed to look behind the curtain. Economics is one of them. The Federation supposedly did away with money, as they achieved some kind of Utopia, focused on the mutual benefit of all mankind. As we reach the outer borders of the Federation, things become murkier, especially at Quarks. Gold-pressed latinum is the currency of choice, and it must somehow be resistant to replication, or it would be devalued.

Nog decides to try trading Yamok sauce

There are some interesting posts about Star Trek economics by Rick Webb and Matthew Yglesias, which discuss Star Trek as an example of post-scarcity economics. From this episode, it's difficult to see this at work.

Both plots in the episode deal with economics at scale. When Nog and Jake begin bartering goods, they begin with a shipment of Cardassian Yamock sauce, specifically stated to be non-replicated. This raises a few interesting questions: is there a quality difference between something which is replicated and then consumed in a short period of time, versus something produced and then shipped at warp speed, then stored for unspecified amounts of time? If replication technology is based on transporter technology, why is there a difference? It would seem to me that the extra costs of shipping would vastly outweigh any potential profits. It seems to me that the last trade, for land, is the one which is most resistant to replication. At the same time, the large energy project shows a disconnect between a large public works, and a smaller commercial interest. The lunar property is in use, while the land Nog and Jake acquired will never be seen by them. Eminent domain, or expropriation, apparently trumps the use by farming.

Nog examines the self-sealing stem bolts

Is this energy source even needed? We have starships flying across the galaxy at warp speed on a regular basis. Why is harnessing geothermal sources preferred to harnessing these other sources? Why can't Yamock sauce or self-sealing stem bolts be replicated?

The next issue is that of the energy project on Bajor's moon. It's apparently a destructive process, which requires the evacuation and eviction of all residents. It has the states purpose of providing energy to heat X number of homes. From what we have seen so far of Bajorans society, their energy demands would appear to be rather low. There appears to be little evidence of the widespread adoption of advanced technology. In this episode, we see a small agricultural farm. In the Storyteller, we see a small village. We have yet to see evidence of industrialization or manufacturing. It is difficult to determine the actual energy needs. Perhaps the requirement is a long-term, sustainable source? It just seems that the stated benefit of this project is far less than I would have expected, based on the energy output we normally see from the Enterprise.

Conclusion

Kira and Mullibok place the final bricks on the kiln

In the end, Kira stands for progress, accepting the necessary cost. He personal involvement helps us see that she does care, and understand what she asks. There's a rather strong impression that the Bajoran bureaucrats don't understand, or really care about the personal costs involved. While it may be soul crushing for Mullibok to leave his home, Kira helps him complete his kiln before burning everything down, forcing him to accept his loss. She does this only after she has shown her understanding and support. Despite Mullibok's protests, she does it for the best of reasons, as a friend.

Kira burns down Mullibok's home

Progress first aired 9 May 1993. Written by Peter Allan Fields. Directed by Les Landau.

Product Review: Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air

When I was looking for a new case for the iPad Air, I decided that I wanted a keyboard. While I do use the Apple Wireless keyboard with my iPad, it is more often connected to my Macbook, along with my wireless mouse. Also, Apple's wireless keyboard isn't as convenient to use when traveling, or when you're not sitting at a desk.

There were a number of different options when I was looking, and all were in the same general price range. Some, like the ZAGG keyboards, provide extra features like keyboard illumination. This seems a little frivolous, as in most cases, the keyboard is going to be at least partially illuminated by the screen itself. Secondly, I'm a touch typist, so actually being able to see the keyboard isn't really all that high on my list of priorities. There does have to be some raised bumps so that I can distinguish between keys to find my place of the home row.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air

So what features are important for me? Perhaps the biggest one is that I need to be able to switch between keyboard mode, and tablet mode, without having to remove the iPad from the case. A few of the cases only work in a laptop style mode, which just isn't going to work for me. If I was only going to use the tablet in laptop mode, why wouldn't I just use a laptop? What I'm looking for is flexibility, without having to remove the tablet from the case.

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio serves the requirements reasonably well. It can work in either keyboard mode, or tablet mode relatively easily. The keyboard is rather thin, so it still doesn't feel as bulky as my old first generation iPad. While the case doesn't fully protect the sides of the device to the same extent as one of Apple's smart cases would, it seems sufficient for normal use. I would suggest not letting children use an ipad with this case, however. Thankfully, I have older devices with more protective cases to entertain kids with.

They keyboard itself feels decent. The keys are easy to type on, with a few notable exceptions:

  1. The tab key requires the use of the function key in conjunction with Q.
  2. The number keys are shifted one digit to the right to accommodate the iPad menu button.
  3. There are a few other keys which also use the function key. The backtick (`) and tilde (~) are above the bracket keys. The iPad specific functions (lock, Siri, Keyboard, and media keys) are also function keys, paired with the number keys. None of these are a problem for me.

Of these two, I find the number keys to be a notable problem. While I don't always type numbers, I'm a touch typist, so when I try to type 1, I end up going to the home screen. When I try to type a time, like 2:35, I end up typing 1:24. They're just not the right size, and it's irritating.

For comparison, look at the photos, of the Apple Wireless Keyboard, and the Logitech. There are clearly compromises being made with the Logitech. Is it the right keyboard for you? That depends. For the most part, I'm really happy with it. If I did more numeric entry, this keyboard would quickly drive me insane. As it is, it's something that I can live with. The compromises made are easier to live with than most of the other keyboards in the range.

Apple Wireless Keyboard

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air, Carbon Black can be purchased from a number of places like Amazon, or a local brick and mortar store like Best Buy.

Forecasting Storm Strength: Stormageddon and the Snowpocalypse

How many times in the past few years have you heard news reports about the oncoming storm that will shut down all roads and highways, and keep everyone inside until the plows can finally dig you out? How many times has the promise of a day home from work and school been left unfulfilled, with only some light snow in place?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickmatthews/2315020721/

These days, the news reports gleefully foretell the oncoming Snowpocalypse, or a weather front about to bring Stormageddon unto us all. It seems all the weather channels want to talk about, and it carries over to radio morning shows. In some areas of North America, this is sometimes taken to ludicrous lengths:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/iBlDU8e7om0&rel=0]

Obviously, media coverage isn't a sure sign of snow, just as the lack of this coverage isn't necessarily a sign that it isn't coming. So what's the best way to decide if it's really worth going out on the roads, or if it's time to batten the hatches and stay at home? There are a few good resources that can help you judge for yourself.

  1. Try looking outside at the street. If you live on a side street which isn't yet plowed, it may not indicate what the major roads are like, but if it looks like your car isn't getting down the street, it's best to stay put.
  2. Radar maps. This shows what kind of snowfall is currently happening in your region. Most weather sites provide a forecast, where the track of the storm is extrapolated, so you can see where the storm is likely to hit. What kind of intensity is it? Light, steady snow for hours and hours, or a short but intense dumping over just a few hours? Is it a widespread system, or narrow?
  3. Twitter. Hashtags such as #onstorm can give general information on the storm, but it's likely that people you follow are also talking about it. They may provide useful advice as to current road conditions. Local news and traffic radio stations also post information regarding accidents and road closures.
  4. Remember that it's not just snow to be concerned about. Extreme icy conditions can occur without vast quantities of snow.

If you are out and about in dangerous road conditions, try slowing down a bit. It's extremely likely that all those cars in ditches weren't taking the conditions into account with their driving. Give yourself lots of space to stop.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go clear the snow from my driveway. Again.